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As coronavirus cases continue to soar in Whitfield County, at least one elected official wants to consider requiring wearing face masks as a way to slow the spread in the community.

Lynn Laughter, commission chair in Whitfield County, said she has been thinking about issuing some kind of mandate at the county level that would require people to wear face masks in public.

Laughter said recent meetings with the local COVID-19 task force — which includes members of the commission, city council, chamber of commerce the North Georgia Health District and other groups — have alerted her to how people have let their guard down since businesses and other parts of the county have reopened.

"Dr. Zachary Taylor, director of the North Georgia Health District, recently talked about the problem being people are not following the [federal] guidelines or wearing masks like Gov. [Brian] Kemp is encouraging," Laughter said. "The bottom line is, people aren't going to do it. Some people think it's not serious, some are saying they'll get it anyway so what's the point. I don't understand why people aren't willing to wear masks."

Similar warnings came this weekend from Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for the 10-county Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District. Voccio said the two weeks of increased cases "point to a concerning sign that our community is moving in the wrong direction to contain the virus."

Confirmed infections and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have been on the rise in Georgia, and Whitfield County is considered one of the state's new hot spots.

The state health department reports there are 1,366 cases of COVID-19 in Whitfield County and 14 people have died. The moving seven-day average for new cases in the county is now more than 40. Cases, deaths and hospitalizations (69) are all on the rise.

In Dalton, the City Council had to cancel Monday's meeting because a city employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the mask issue has become a political lightning rod across the country.

Kemp was in Dalton last week as part of his "Wear a Mask" campaign to urge people to wear a mask as much as possible.

Kemp stood strong behind his reluctance to issue a statewide mandate that would require people to wear masks in public. The governor, along with Georgia's top health official, Kathleen Toomey, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, said issuing a mandate to wear face masks would be counterproductive in the fight to slow the spread of the virus, adding that he preferred to leave his trust in the hands of Georgians to make the right decision.

"We don't need a mandate to do the right thing," Kemp said. "Let's just be smart and reasonable."

The city of Savannah was the first municipality in Georgia to take matters into its own hands and is requiring most residents and visitors wear a mask in public.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson signed an emergency order requiring people to wear masks inside retail shops, grocery stores and other public places — and those who refuse could face $500 fines.

Larry Hanson is the executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association. Hanson told the Associated Press some Georgia cities have moved to require face coverings inside government buildings but Savannah was the first he's aware of to extend that requirement to businesses that are open to the public.

As the virus started to spread in Georgia in March, many of Kemp's executive orders that were meant to safely close the state largely prohibited local governments from setting coronavirus restrictions that go beyond those imposed by the state.

Laughter said she wasn't sure how much power the Whitfield County Commission has, but doubts Kemp would take action against Savannah or any municipality that issues a mask mandate.

"I have a hard time believing Kemp would be against it," she said.

The rest of the commissioners? That's another story.

Commissioners Harold Brooker, Roger Crossen, Greg Jones and Barry Robbins all told the Daily Citizen News in Dalton they would not support a mask mandate but instead would want to follow Kemp's lead.

Jones told the Times Free Press on Monday that he would be a "no" vote if it came to that, but he would be open to talking about it.

Jones, who works in excavation and agriculture, said he hasn't worn a mask since the pandemic started and doesn't plan on wearing one in the future.

"It's a free country," Jones said. "I'm a grown-up. I can make up my own mind about it."

Laughter said she's considering drafting a resolution to advocate for people to wear masks in public. She also thinks it's worth it to have the discussion about a mask mandate publicly at the commission's next meeting on July 13.

"I thought the commissioners should at least talk about it," she said. "I don't anticipate something like this will pass. What I'm really hoping for is sometime in the next week the governor will come out with an order."

On Monday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger issued a mandate requiring face masks in public, joining Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.

"My feelings can be summed up in my 10-year-old grandson's words," Laughter said. "He said to me, 'We wear masks to protect other people. Why don't other people care about us enough to wear masks?'"

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter@PatrickFilbin.

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